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Buhari’s ultimate retreat from campaign promises

Buhari’s ultimate retreat from campaign promises

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Minabere Ibelema

When President Muhammadu Buhari chided Nigerian youths as indolent while addressing a business forum in London recently, he set off a firestorm of criticism. Buhari was apparently, attempting to explain away his administrations unfulfilled expectations, and somehow found it plausible to dump it all on the feet of Nigeria’s youths.

“More than 60 per cent of the population is below the age of 30,” Reuters quoted him as saying. “A lot of them haven’t been to school and they are claiming that Nigeria has been an oil producing country, therefore, they should sit and do nothing, and get housing, healthcare, education free.”

For an already beleaguered demographic group, that has to be the unkindest cut of all. And for a president who just announced his quest for re-election, those have to be some of the most unwise and inconsiderate words to allow expression.

For Nigerian youths, these are no easy times. To begin with, never before in Nigeria’s history have schools been the target of mayhem by a terrorist group seeking to shut them down. And never since the civil war have the youths faced so bleak an economic condition as has been the case the past three years.

Regarding the lack of education, Buhari is certainly well aware that the problem is much more acute in a certain region. He also has to be aware that his predecessor, former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, did much to allay the problem. After three years in office, Buhari would have been well-advised to tout his record — if any — in sustaining Jonathan’s effort. Bemoaning the condition before a foreign audience worked very well while he was campaigning for office. It doesn’t work so well for an incumbent.

In any case, as someone who is inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, my initial instinct on learning about Buhari’s remark was to attribute it to the pressures of extemporaneous remarks. That would have been a very plausible explanation for Buhari in particular given that he is not exactly gifted in that respect.

But then there is a more compelling explanation. Buhari’s declaration about “a lot of them” is actually consistent with a pattern of retreat from his campaign promises. It may well be the ultimate retreat.

While campaigning for office in 2015, Buhari and his handlers positioned him as the messiah that would deliver Nigeria from all its ills. He brandished the rhetorical equivalent of the silver bullet and promised to slay corruption, ineptitude, insecurity, Boko Haram’s menace, unemployment, and everything else that has bedevilled Nigeria.

Ironically, it was during another occasion in London that Buhari thus wowed the world with his vision of Nigeria if elected. It was in February 2015 in Chatham House. Regarding the economy, Buhari summarized several positives, including Nigeria’s rebasing of the GDP and ascendance as Africa’s largest economy, the average economic growth of seven per cent for the preceding 10 years, and an inflation rate that was kept under single digits. But then he quickly rubbished all of that.

“But it is more of paper growth, a growth that, on account of mismanagement, profligacy and corruption, has not translated to human development or shared prosperity,” Buhari said.

“The … current administration has created two economies in one country, a sorry tale of two nations: one economy for a few who have so much in their tiny island of prosperity; and the other economy for the many who have so little in their vast ocean of misery.”

And he vowed to solve the problem: “In the face of dwindling revenues, a good place to start the repositioning of Nigeria’s economy is to swiftly tackle two ills that have ballooned under the present administration: waste and corruption. And in doing this, I will, if elected, lead the way, with the force of personal example.”

But no sooner had Buhari taken office than he dampened the messianic fervour. Though the retreat was evident from the start, it became most pronounced and official during the president’s launching of the “Change Begins With Me” campaign in September 2016. The rhetoric then was quite a reversal of the Chatham House claim that it is all about leadership.

“I welcome you all to this important occasion of the launching of the National Re-orientation Campaign, called ‘Change Begins With Me,’Buhari began. “Nigeria today is passing through a challenging moment where hardly anything works in a normal manner. Many have attributed this phenomenon to the total breakdown of our core values over the years.

“It is safe to say today that honesty, hard work, Godliness have given way to all kinds of manifestations of lawlessness and degeneration in our national life. This is why we have among our cardinal objectives ‘change’, which implies the need for a change of attitude and mindset in our everyday life.”

In effect, the problem with Nigeria is not a problem of leadership, as Chinua Achebe famously stated and Buhari echoed. It is the peoples’ values. In effect, Buhari the president was backing away from the stance of Buhari the candidate. When then during another meeitng in London Buhari seemed to blame Nigeria’s economic malaise on youth indolence, it was obvious that he was reiterating his argument at the launching of the “Change Begins With Me” campaign.

Now, to be clear, I am a believer in the values argument and have written quite a bit about it in this column and in my scholarly work. Still, I couldn’t help noticing the dramatic reversal in Buhari’s campaign rhetoric and administrative strategy.

While societal values are, indeed, an important element of national development, they have a complex relationship with the quality of leadership. On the one hand, the civic ethos of leaders often reflects the values or political dynamics of the society. On the other hand, leadership and political dynamics can also lift or debase societal values.

In the Nigerian context, there is little question that it is the latter that happened. As a number of sociologists and political scientists have noted, Nigerian societies were very ethical societies. Civic values took a dive in the crucible of modernisation and the jostling for ethnic advantage. The challenge then is to raise the civic character of leaders and the people simultaneously. It is not one or the other.

Incidentally, Buhari has been noticeably silent on the factor of ethnocentricism. Yet, it is a major force in debasing Nigeria’s political culture. It extolled the belief that success is not a matter of what one can do, but with whom one has kinship. Jonathan recognised this problem and so pursued a policy of merit and inclusiveness.

Alas, Buhari has done much to reverse this progress, and that can only undercut his campaign to lift civic values. In this respect, the “Change Begins With Me” slogan may well be pointing most squarely at Buhari himself.

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